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A Beggar and a Man

A Beggar and a Man

I've carried an idea of him in my mind. Who, for him, was the young girl with scorn in her eyes?

by

Though the day was young, the sun, already brutal, was climbing to the top of a faultless blue sky. My friend and I were walking home from the Kotel - in heat as dry and steady as heat blowing at us from an oven - and we'd gotten about halfway back when a wooden bench beckoned from under a leafy tree. There was really no rush – neither of us had anything more to do for Shabbos lunch - so we stepped aside for a little break.

After all these years in the Middle East, it still surprises me slightly that in this climate, stepping into the shade can be like entering an air-conditioned chamber.

It felt good to sit down.

A minute or so went by and we began moving languidly from thought to thought, in the un-self-conscious manner of old friends. We talked about her youngest son's new job, and the upcoming visit from one of my married daughters, and something I'd read in the paper that week - idle conversation as the spirit moved us. "You know what those are?" she asked, pointing with her chin.

Looking up, I became aware of all the yellowish-green oblong shapes, like elongated grapes, standing stiffly unripe among the branches - arranged not in pendulous clusters, like grapes, but singly, one by one.

"Figs!" I exclaimed, momentarily suffused by a small flash flood of memory. "My mother loved figs."

The two of us were still drifting in and out of conversation when across the street, coming up the sidewalk from over to the left, somebody's noisy, fast-stepping approach caught our attention. There were parked cars between us and the walker, blocking my line of vision, but in a few seconds a man vigorously pushing a baby carriage strode into view, and to my surprise (taken aback, confused to discover he had children) I saw who it was - a beggar I've been seeing around Jerusalem for the past 30 years, ever since I got here in 1976.

Whenever we cross paths, something within me cringes, repulsed, and I avert my gaze.

In almost the same moment, though, it became apparent that no, it was just someone who looked like him, sort of. The beggar I was thinking of is a really slow mover, indolent and sloppy. This man was taller and older, a father dressed in a normal Shabbos suit, and he was obviously in a hurry somewhere. (A particular minyan, maybe? Meeting his wife at the Kotel?) The beggar's a loner, with a slyly inappropriate way about him - at once evasive and intrusive - and he has always brought out in me (I'm ashamed to admit) a reflexive, instantaneous irritation and embarrassment, for two reasons: first, because he's just about my age - my peer – (Go out and work!) and secondly, because he comes dressed in chareidi (Orthodox) garb, and plies his trade not only among us, his landesmen, but among tourists, as well: a bad representative for Orthodox Jews. I've heard myself thinking, with visceral distaste: If tourists give you something, at least look them in the eye and say thank you! And Wash your clothes! You're a walking chillul Hashem (desecration)! Tuck your shirt in! Stop slouching around like that! Whenever we cross paths, something within me cringes, repulsed, and I avert my gaze. In all these years, maybe I've given him a grand total of ten shekels, or come to think of it, probably more like five.

Now that the father was passing directly across from us, I saw that the carriage was a double stroller, carrying two alert, pert little kids who were about a year apart. As he quickly continued on (a fleeting glimpse of his profile reminded me again of the beggar) he gave a decisive nod and a "Good Shabbos!" to a pedestrian coming the other way - a Chassid in black satin waistcoat and glossy-furred streimel, who politely returned the greeting.

My gaze was following him along as he walked, without my paying attention, really, when all of a sudden the father stopped in his tracks. With one hand still gripping the handlebar authoritatively and legs planted firmly on the sidewalk, he twisted around half-way and looked back in the direction from which he'd just come, lifting a forearm to shade his eyes.

This was the first good look I'd gotten of him.

It was the beggar.

Squinting with florid and furrowed brow, he now became visible: the messy, ill-fitting suit, sweaty with exertion, and a dirty shirt, its tails hanging out.

Whoever it was he was expecting, they didn't show up, whereupon he swung abruptly around and faced forward, throwing himself dramatically back into the march, hunched over the handlebars.

After around five steps, again he stopped, and turned, and searched.

A few yards more and he stopped and turned again, peering into the distance before pressing on determinedly.

Then he and the toddlers disappeared around a curve.

* * *

All the above took maybe a minute and a half.

My friend and I hadn't resumed talking yet when along the same stretch of sidewalk, giving off a majestic air of regal tranquility and ease, two women came strolling into view. It was Henny Machlis and one of her married daughters, on their way to the Kotel, and all at once I understood. Without explaining myself to my friend, I jumped up and crossed the street. "Henny!"

She and her daughter smiled and wished me Good Shabbos.

"You let him push your grandchildren!"

In Jerusalem, the Machlis family is a legend in our time: every Shabbos without fail, throughout the years I've lived here, they've opened their average-size apartment on Shabbos night and Shabbos day to anyone in the city who wants companionship, words of Torah from Rabbi Machlis, and a free Shabbos meal. Forty guests, fifty, sixty, seventy, week in, week out, the majority of them strangers, many of them longtime returnees, crowd into the Machlises' living room and sit on rows of plastic chairs, at folding picnic tables covered in white. College and seminary students, yeshiva bochurim, backpackers. All kinds of people, in any station of life. The secular and the holy rollers. The young, the old, the middle-aged, singles and couples, Israelis and Europeans, Russian immigrants, curious parents of baalei-teshuva visiting from America, yuppies and hippies, tourists and...apparently... beggars.

I've sometimes noticed myself inwardly reassuring my conscience that though I don't do what the Machlises do, I, too, host guests, but in my own way, according to the grain of my own personality. I like relating one on one, I tell myself. Crowds aren't my forte.

She'd put her trust in him, and it had transformed him.

Henny's brown eyes were shining and twinkling - happiness I attributed to what she'd just done. Then I realized that that's just her usual expression. Caught off guard, she gave a little laugh and ignored my remark, but I knew perfectly well, as a mother and grandmother myself, that it couldn't have been comfortable for her or her daughter. He must have offered, and they hadn't wanted to insult him or hurt him, and after all, he wasn't dangerous, just poor. In every way.

She'd put her trust in him, and it had transformed him to the extent that he actually looked physically different. I don't recall that he was smiling, but it was the first time I'd ever seen him in a good mood. Strutting along jauntily with a merry cockiness and a purposeful air, he hadn't shrunk from looking that dignified Chassid in the eye. He was a person like anyone else, doing his friends a favor, on his way somewhere.

* * *

I once heard Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller say that it doesn't matter so much where we get in life, as much as who we become in the process.

It was only an hour or so ago, while writing this, that something hit me: maybe that man has been aware of me, too, from afar, getting older through the years. I've carried an idea of him in my mind. Who, for him, was the young girl with scorn in her eyes in 1976, who later showed up with a husband, and eventually children, and grandchildren?

Why did he stop like that in the street, enacting a cartoon-like caricature of Family Man Waiting Impatiently but Good-Naturedly for Them to Catch Up - going through the same exaggerated charade, once, twice, three times? Because he'd spotted me on Shivtei Israel Street and worried that that woman on the bench (the one who's been looking at him askance as her own life passed by) might think he'd stolen someone's children. So he felt compelled to broadcast a signal to a cold, cold world: I'm not doing anything wrong.

And by the way, said his soul to mine, though I only heard it now, there's someone else you avoided, as well, by averting your eyes from me.

Published: June 2, 2007


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Visitor Comments: 20

(19) aviva, September 17, 2007 11:55 PM

interesting

this was really interesting, but how can we really balance the respect we must have towards beggars and at the same time the caution we must have, since you really don't know who the person is?

(18) Cheryl Potance, June 8, 2007 5:49 PM

Even the most "insignificant" people amongst us can have a major impact on our lives.

It must have been very difficult for Sara Shapiro to look so deeply inside herself and realize her first impression about the poor beggar was a false impression. She learned something very important that day. I'm glad she took the time to share this with the rest of the world. I, for one, paid attention, and learned something too.

(17) A MOM, June 7, 2007 12:11 PM

eliciting thoughts and memories...

In so many ways I connected to elements of this article.
In a few cases I've been privileged to learn the real stories of beggars, and because of them learned always to think of them as real people with a bigger picture out there - not just the static image of that unfortunate,weak, or unmotivated heap on the street in front of me. Walking with Israeli-American friends once on a Jerusalem street, we stopped before a beggar - a well-built man perhaps in his fifties with a graying beard, in the long-frocked garb and gangly peyos typical for the neighborhood, but oh-so unkempt. He sat morosely on the edge of a cracked milk crate in a dark doorway.I would have passed him by, or handed him a coin and a short blessing at the most (if, of course, it wouldn't be a big hassle for me to dig around my purse). One of my friends startled me by stopping to talk to him at length, beginning with a hearty "Ma Inyanim?" and following up by updating him on family news, who's getting married, who moved, and so on. By the way, all the while the two conversed in impecable English. The friend did also hand him a couple of shekels. Later I was filled in that this man was actually a former nuclear scientist or something similar, and for some reason had "snapped." Now he found it impossible to take care of himself as we would. Still, I was reminded that he had his feelings, his humanity, his dignity. And he also deserved a friend. What Tzedaka!
Another time I was pursued down Rechov Malachei Yisroel by a pitiful woman for whom my offer of a 1/2 shekel was not enough, though it was all I had (I never understood how I was perceived by these folks as a rich American). She did not want to take my "no" for an answer. Finally I suggested to her that I had away for her to earn 10X my donation to her. In answer to her eager "Tell me, " I replied, "Take this coin home and put it in a pushka. Hashem promised us that he would repay us many times over for our tzedaka. Watch. It will happen." She literally hugged me and thanked me with such utter enthusiastic simplicity that I realized here was a woman of faith - whatever her circumstances. She announced that I had taught her well and that she would indeed run home that very minute and follow my advice. Wrong, Mrs. good-hearted Beggar - you taught ME well. I really hope she saw the fruits of her endeavor, of course.
As for Mrs. Machlis, her magic was demonstrated in what she did for that one SINGLE beggar, and it really was no different from what she does every Shabbos for multitudes, in her miracle home (I've been there). For every person, she and her family members accomplish the wondrous deed of giving life to all: they imbue the individual with a sense of counting, being important in this world. THe strangers then feel cared about and befriended. Thus, Mrs. Shapiro can stop worrying. The way you take care of your guests in singles and doubles counts for the same as the Machlis's 60s and 70's! This is actually something I had to teach myself after too much of the same kind of useless comparing. Thanks for teaching and sharing with us as always your beautiflul insights into life.

Dina- Jerusalem, November 7, 2012 5:18 PM

tzdaka

There was an American woman I used to see at the Kosel, dressed very nicely and collecting for poor brides. Of course it is impossible to know if these people are telling the truth or not, but she looked so nice that I always gave her a couple shekel. Then I found out that she really was collecting for brides, and sat there day after day for many hours,in all kinds of weather, to help girls she didn't even know. An aquaintence of mine told me that in the evenings, poor mothers of brides come to her, with letters of recommandations, and she empties out her bag and give them whatever she collected that day. But since I heard this story I have never seen her again, but if I would, I would give a real nice size donation. But on the other hand, Dvirah, June, 2007, is also right, you do have to be carefull.

(16) Anonymous, June 5, 2007 7:30 PM

Sarah Shapiro is excellent as usual

Sarah, you did it again. You entertained and you made us think. Yashar koach.

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